Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Memoir as Vengeance, Introduction

Some time ago I noticed how much I enjoy reading memoirs: in the last dozen years I've read or reread the memoirs of such as John Lukacs, George Kennan, Alvin Kernan, and Iris Origo. In general these are not the sort of memoir that seems to have started wearing on people, in which the emphasis is on escape from bad familial and personal situations. All the authors just named lived through difficult enough times, chiefly WW II, but that is not why I read them. The clue is in Thoreau's Journals, entry of March 18, 1861:

"You can't read any genuine history--as that of Herodotus or the Venerable Bede--without perceiving that our interest depends not on the subject but on the man,--on the manner in which he treats the subject and on the importantce he gives it. A feeble writer and without genius must have what he thinks a great theme, which we are already interested in through the accounts of others, but a genius--a Shakespeare, for instance--would make the history of his parish more interesting than another's history of the world."

A minor but entertaining interest in such works is the author's judgments on his fellows. Some memoirists, not particularly those above, set down in their works judgments that a devil's advocate might find harsh or at least unbecoming. In the Goncourt brothers' journals one finds

5 janvier [1865]--Sainte-Beuve a vu une fois le premier Empereur. C'était à Boulogne: il était en train de pisser. N'est-ce pas un peu dans cette posture-là qu'il a vu et jugé depuis tous les grands hommes?

Sainte-Beuve seems to have been notably given to this, to judge by the bits of his conversation the brothers--not ones themselves to waste good words on the undeserving--reproduce.

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